U.S. is heavy favorite vs. Colombia
SINSHEIM, Germany -- With the tricky encounter against North Korea out of the way, the U.S. -- which has qualified for every FIFA Women's World Cup and claimed the title twice -- will take on tournament newbie Colombia. Entering the tournament, Las Cafeteras were expected to be Group C's punching bag, but hung tough defensively in their World Cup debut, a tough 1-0 loss to Sweden.
What's on the line
Having ably dealt with North Korea, the U.S. can clinch passage to the second round with a win combined with Sweden getting a win or a draw in its next match. Accomplishing that goal would not only remove much of the tension from the group finale against the Swedes, but it would also enable U.S. manager Pia Sundhage to ration minutes ahead of the knockout stages. Colombia almost has to win to keep its long-shot hopes of advancement alive.
Style and tactics
Colombia employs a 4-4-2, although against Sweden it was clear the team was out of its comfort zone. Playmaker Yoreli Rincon dropped very deep, almost inviting midfield running mate Daniela Montoya to be the more advanced of the two central midfielders. Instead, much of the attacking initiative was done by the wide midfielders Carmen Rodallega and Diana Ospina, with Ospina often starting in very advanced positions.
Evidently this was not the way head coach Ricardo Rozo wanted to operate. Rincon's anonymous performance led to speculation that she has been feeling the weight of expectations that surrounded her entering the tournament. Given how reliant Colombia has been on Rincon for offense, it seems inconceivable that Rozo would turn elsewhere after one game, but when asked if Rincon would start against the U.S., Rozo said through a translator, "Probably not."
Defensively, Colombia played a very high line against Sweden, inviting the opposition to play through balls into its front-runners. This allowed the Swedes to get in behind the Colombians several times, and only some last-ditch defending prevented Sweden from winning the game more comfortably.
Meanwhile, the U.S. will look to play through its midfield, although Sundhage hinted that it could be Lori Lindsey playing alongside Carli Lloyd as opposed to Shannon Boxx. The U.S. will also try to exploit the pace of Amy Rodriguez and Heather O'Reilly. O'Reilly will be counted on to provide service into the box for striker Abby Wambach.
Players to watch
For Colombia: Carmen Rodallega, Natalia Gaitan, Sandra Sepulveda, Yoreli Rincon
If Rincon does indeed start the game on the bench, look for Colombia to try to get at the U.S. defense through wide players such as Rodallega. The left midfielder was among Colombia's best attacking threats against Sweden, not only looking dangerous from wide positions, but also showing a penchant for cutting inside and shooting from more central areas. Gaitan will marshal Colombia's backline, and she'll be responsible for keeping things organized against a U.S. team that can attack from a variety of areas. Against Sweden, keeper Sepulveda was suspect on crosses, but decisive coming off her line. That quick thinking will be needed to keep the American attack at bay.
As for Rincon, even if she doesn't start, it seems likely she'll see the field at some point. The U.S. will need to be mindful of her ability to make incisive passes, as well as to shoot from distance.
For the U.S.: Amy Rodriguez, Carli Lloyd, Ali Krieger, Lori Lindsey
Rodriguez looked bright against North Korea, and her slashing runs could be the key to unlocking Colombia's defense. Lloyd, the team's attacking quarterback, will need to mix and match her passes and not let Colombia's high defensive line goad her into only playing balls over the top. Krieger's play has been rock-steady over the past few months, both in attack and defense. She'll be tasked primarily with stopping Rodallega. Lindsey, assuming she starts, will need to rely on her mobility to help stifle any Colombian attacks, while also keeping the offense ticking over with possession-building passes.
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What we can expect
This is a game that -- on paper -- the U.S. should win comfortably, but that edge doesn't always translate onto the field.
Colombia's tactics against Sweden, in particular the high defensive line, would seem set to play right into the Americans' hands given the pure speed the U.S. possesses in attack. For that reason it wasn't a surprise that following Friday's practice, defender Natalia Gaitan admitted that she expects her side to drop a bit deeper in defense, and operate closer to its own goal.
With respect to the Colombia attack, Sundhage insisted that the probable absence of Rincon will do nothing to alter her game plan. She is well aware of Colombia's ability to play short, quick passes in the midfield, as well as the ability of Rodallega and Ospina to take on defenders one-on-one.
But Colombia's attack can be very deliberate at times, and the inability of forwards Lady Andrade and Catalina Usme to hold the ball up seems set to be exposed against U.S. central defenders Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler.
If the U.S. can find its rhythm in attack, developing a good mix of short and long passes, it could have a field day against Las Cafeteras. This is especially true if the U.S. can provide Wambach with accurate service from the wings.
The U.S. has a massive edge in experience, but it also has more at stake. Colombia, meanwhile, has nothing to lose, and it has the first-game jitters out of the way. That said, the U.S. no doubt gained considerable confidence in taking out North Korea, and with the knockout stages in sight, the Americans will be keen to take care of business.
Which team will win?
The U.S. enters as the heavy favorite. Look for the U.S. to come out on top 2-0.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.